Reducing Resistance

How do you create a supported and useful transformation initiative?

When working with any sort of transformational agenda in an organisation at some point you will encounter resistance, inertia or stuckness. Sometimes as people-with-purpose we are drawn to trying to blast through the resistance and to force our agenda on others because of course “we know it is right” but maybe there is a better way of finding flow with our work.

People and the systems that we create have muscle memory and if we force through change then it is highly likely that our changes will unravel to remember the loyalties that were causing the stuckness in the first place. This could be through a conscious concerted resistance effort or just through subconscious muscle memory. As we all know “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast” – right?

Most of us will have already experienced this in our personal lives as we try to change habits whether these are sleeping patterns, working patterns, diets, giving up smoking or something else. The organisations that we create are of course systems of humans and these too have embedded habits and loyalties to a way of being.

Through our lives and through the systems that we have joined and left we establish ways of being in groups. These could be cultural norms, family rules or patterns from education systems and formative work experiences. Early in our lives we learn that if we comply with the norms of the the group we are accepted and recognised. These are mostly not conscious rules that we carry in our heads but just an ingrained part of who we are that we carry deep within us. We often see these manifest themselves when we would use words like: can’t, should or have to or maybe in repeating behaviour patterns. 

In working with Systemic coaching and Constellations, created by Bert Hellinger for his work with families, we have come to understand that there are principles that we can acknowledge and understand that will help leaders and transformation agents smooth their path for the benefit of the whole system.

So let’s take a look at the principle of balance between these key elements of Time, Place, Exchange and Size. 

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As we work on a transformation or innovation agenda it is easy to get swept up in the momentum and energy of the new. However, unless our goal is the create a short-lived exemplar team or a bright shining light that dies out as quickly as it was created then our music needs to keep time with the rest of orchestra. Respecting the natural hierarchy of time in this context means that the new is building on the history of the old and working with a deep respect for the efforts of those who came before and made it possible for the new to have a place. 

This is a painful lesson that I have learnt personally from witnessing the failed potential of working on several Pilot Transformation initiatives. They look great for a while but the seeds rarely take root.

Some questions that you might want to ask yourself and your teams to check in here are:

  • Who was first in this system and are they on board with this work? 
  • Are the founders of the system credited and honoured for their work?
  • How could we work with the blessing of the founding energy of the system? 
  • Is your transformation work accessing the knowledge and experience of those who came first? 
  • Are we respecting the heritage of the organisation and teams as we seek to move to the future?
  • Are we appreciating the previous ways of working that have existed in this system? 
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For our systems to be in flow and not in a place of stuckness, they need to be in balance. One of the ways to help achieve this is to give the key elements of a system a place in our work. If we try to deny a place to important parts of the system they will be re-membered whether we like it or not. If we do not do this consciously and allow people to work in way that acknowledges an appropriate place for these elements then this can result in systemic tensions and unsurfaced loyalties which then become more difficult to uncover and for people to process.

A few of the elements of a system that we will want to give a place too, include:

  • Organisational Purpose
  • Previous Leaders and Loyalties
  • Culture
  • Hidden Leaders
  • Customers, Teams, Skillsets
  • Money

You will also want to consider whether each of these elements is in a place where it feels safe, respected and acknowledged and if not what might you want to explore to bring back balance in to the system.

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The systems that we create are built from the contributions of the many. These could be current team members, people who have since left the system, third parties or customers. All of these elements have given and received in the creation our systems and therefore have a place in them. 

Often when leaders join a new organisation they are either given a story of the past or they determine a story of the past that dismisses the contribution of predecessors or people still in the system who helped get things to where they are today. Accepting this story as truth is likely to be a mistake. Pausing to take time to appreciate the contributions of all who created the system is likely help uncover hidden loyalties and enable people to appreciate what came before in a way that can then release the energy  from the loyalty of being stuck in the past to work in service of shared transformational goals. 

Some considerations in relation to the balance of Exchange are:

  • Which contributions to the systems are acknowledged or forgotten?
  • Who gives too much in this system?
  • What does it cost to be a part in this system? 
  • Are people’s contributions to this system acknowledged respectfully?
  • What are the different parts of this system working in service of?
  • Can people occupy their roles with authority?
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For systems to be in balance, the parts of the system need to be of appropriate size. We develop our ways-of-being in groups through our early life experiences and many of us are called to occupy a role that is bigger than truly belongs to us. This could be the child called to be the carer for the parent or the eldest child protecting the younger siblings.

These patterns often stick with us and these same people can then sub-consciously recreate these relationship patterns or find themselves attracted to situations where they will be “too big” for their role. This could be the leader who feels that they have to do all the work because no-one else is up to the job, or it might be the person who takes on responsibility for the well-being of others.

On the other side of the coin we sometimes can feel unheard, lost or small in a system.

Sometimes this imbalance in size could be a life pattern that we recognise but it could also be a result of working with someone else who is reliving their “too big” or “too small” pattern.

For systems to work in flow and for all elements of the systems to interact sustainably and to give a transformation agenda a chance to survive the elements of the system need to be of appropriate size whether this be: the customer, the teams, the leaders, the money, the founders, the history or anything else. If we try to exclude or make something too small in our system, the truth will balance things out and you will be likely to experience systemic resistance which could take the form of people feeling frustrated with colleagues, exhaustion, feeling controlled, ignored or marginalised. 

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So if the path to deliver on transformative agendas is so fraught with challenge what is the good news? Well while human beings are complex and we all carry our perceptions of right, wrong, can, can’t, should, shouldn’t etc with us, if we can facilitate a dialogue from a place of curiosity, compassion, support, patience and encouragement rather than judgement and pressure then we can surface these tensions and enable people, teams and organisations to develop their systemic awareness and find their transformative flow in the process.